Professor Carol Tracy never saw it coming.
Sitting in her office on Nov. 9, 2016, Tracy watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech with a heart of grief: “I was absolutely terrified and enraged.”
Tracy, a lecturer in Penn’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program, recalls Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election as the lowest point of her career. His administration would put the past four decades of her activist work in Philadelphia at stake.
“So much of my life has been a life of seeing progress—extraordinary progress—and working to hold on to it, as efforts were there to push it back,” says Tracy.
Tracy has been the executive director of the Women’s Law Project—a nonprofit legal organization working to eliminate gender bias and discrimination—for 31 years now. Before that, she led Penn Women’s Center as its director shortly after its creation in 1973. She also spent time at Penn as a secretary and a student, spearheading sit–ins and protests against rape and sexual assault. Her life is a testament to the dedication and struggle it’s taken to advance reproductive rights and women’s representation at Penn and across the nation, as well as a poignant reminder of the feminist work that still needs to be done.
Tracy is both a full–time women’s rights lawyer and a local activist, championing critical women’s rights issues like the right to abortion or support for survivors of sexual assault. Trump’s election was a direct attack on her life’s mission, but she’s never one to give up when faced with an uphill battle. In fact, she credits much of her growth as an activist to such moments of frustration and defeat.
The first time she was told to quit, Tracy was in elementary school. “Someone told my sixth–grade teacher, a nun, that I liked Elvis,” she says. “She read an article from a Catholic newspaper criticizing him. And I said, ‘I don’t care, I still like him. My mother likes him. My grandmother likes him.’”
The then six–grader took this chance to make her first stand against the establishment, declaring her love for the “Elvis who thrust his pelvis.” As expected, the nun said Elvis Presley was immoral, and Tracy was thrown out of the classroom. However, years later in high school, the young woman unexpectedly received an apology from the nun—which marked the budding activist’s first successful political statement.
This rather unconventional experience charged Tracy with a fearless nonconformity that manifested in her career. Upon high school graduation, Tracy worked as a secretary at Penn full–time while also taking courses part–time in the nighttime program of the School of General Studies (now the College of Liberal and Professional Studies). The nighttime program offered the same professors and content as Penn’s undergrad curriculum, and courses were half–price for Penn employees. During that period, Tracy became active in the on–campus feminist community.
“Discrimination based on gender existed throughout the University, including [against] very, very senior faculty women,” she says. Tracy stresses the severity of the situation back when she was a student: “Many [senior faculty women] didn’t actually have the status of tenure. So they were organizing under some important executive orders [Executive Order 11478].”
Secretaries weren’t initially included in this movement, which Tracy worked to change. Once welcomed, she joined a multigenerational community that focused on collective work. “They kept an eye out for me,” she says. Black and female faculty members became Tracy’s mentors and support network. She names the late Penn Dental professor Phoebe Leboy, microbiology professor Helen Davies at Penn Medicine, and former Penn Police women’s security specialist Ruth Wells as her biggest inspirations.
“If there is one lesson, it is the power of joining forces,” she says. “Collective work is really important.”
Tracy’s position as the secretary turned out to be a strategic advantage for the movement. “As the spokesperson, I could sign these letters criticizing the administration, right and left,” she says. “And what were they going to do? Fire a secretary? They weren’t going to come after me, but they could have hurt some of these senior faculty in terms of promotion or not giving them the kind of support they needed.”
Unafraid to use her voice, Tracy became the face of Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania (WEOUP), an organization formed by women activists that worked to foster gender equality on campus.
When financial aid became available, Tracy enrolled as a full–time student. This was when one of the most significant moments of Tracy’s activist career took place. In 1973, news came out that two students were raped at 34th and Market St; it would later be revealed that five students had been raped in the span of three days. Tracy immediately stepped in to help organize campus–wide protests calling for Penn to address the case properly.
“To tell you the truth, we were afraid, because we were hearing [about] sexual assaults in various buildings and didn't know if it was one assault, or if it was five assaults,” she says. “The then Head of Public Safety met with us and told us that one way to avoid being raped was to not wear provocative clothing.”
What happened next, in Tracy’s words, can only be described as extraordinary.
“A very assertive sixteen–year–old freshman named Rose Weber, who is now a major civil rights lawyer in New York, stood up, looked at him, and said, ‘I can walk buck naked down this campus, and your job is to protect me.’”
Tracy’s eyes beam as she recalls this moment. “I always liken it to when you’re in an aquarium and you see the fish all turn at once. You know, that whoosh! Because that’s what happened to the audience of women. We went from fear and concern to absolute rage.”
The courageous act of this one student led to an organized sit–in in College Hall, to demands of more security, and eventually, to the creation of Penn Women’s Center, originally a safe space for women on campus. Penn Women’s Center now provides support for students of all genders and identities.
After graduating from Penn, Tracy worked as the director of the Bicentennial Women's Center. When the former director of Penn Women’s Center left, Tracy took on that role while simultaneously pursuing her J.D. degree at Temple Law School. During her time as director of PWC from 1977 to 1984, Tracy focused on addressing issues around affirmative action and sexual assault on campus.
One of the most influential cases she oversaw occurred in 1983, when a group of Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) brothers allegedly raped a female student at their fraternity house. The case received national attention but ultimately resulted in a six–month suspension for the frat. Meanwhile, the University offered the female student a monetary settlement to prevent her from suing over the administration's actions. It’s unclear if she took the settlement. Several hundred students protested against Penn’s handling of the case and violence against women on campus at large.
Becoming a Penn employee did not stop Tracy from criticizing the administration’s responses to sexual assault cases. “The ATO incident happened … and I was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal criticizing the president of the University of Pennsylvania while I was an employee,” she says. “Yep, and I didn't get fired.”
“They tried to talk me down. I said, ‘Listen, this is my job. If I'm not willing to lose my job for what I was hired to do, then there's no point in having the job.’”
In 1990, Tracy’s dream job opened up. Having practiced in a private law firm for several years and worked as a city attorney, she was ready to join the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization dedicated to improving the legal status of women and LGBTQ people. Tracy took her decades of experience organizing for women’s rights at Penn and began a career in advocacy at the state and national level. In her 31 years as the program’s director, she led the publication of key studies on gender discrimination, worked with Pennsylvania’s government to build institutional support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and fought in the courts to protect women’s reproductive rights. This last struggle has come to the forefront of the organization’s work, as Trump’s presidency led to a conservative Supreme Court majority that threatens the future of Roe v. Wade.
From Tracy’s observation, there has been “a steady erosion” of access to abortion, with anti–abortion efforts starting as soon as Roe v. Wade was decided. But the situation escalated at an unprecedented speed, especially after Trump’s presidency. In recent years, feminist activists have witnessed surging, violent attacks on abortion access. According to Tracy, efforts to organize legislators, ongoing violent attacks on abortion–care facilities (including the murders of abortion providers), and the funding of crisis pregnancy centers are three core components of the grassroots anti–abortion movement. Perhaps most upsettingly, the state of Pennsylvania even diverted federal welfare funding, money originally dedicated to helping children and families in poverty, to anti–abortion clinics.
Under Tracy’s leadership, the Women’s Law Project is actively seeking to address Pennsylvania’s anti–abortion policies. In October 2021, they took up the case of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center v. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn the state ban on Medicaid coverage for abortion.
The stakes are high. In 1985, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case ruled abortion funding restrictions constitutional, severely limiting abortion coverage for people on Medicaid, a national program for affordable public health insurance. As a result, women of low income lose access to vital abortion services, which may cost anywhere from $500 to $1,195 depending on the trimester.
If the Women’s Law Project successfully argues its case, it will reverse this ban and join the seventeen other states, including New Jersey and New York, that provide Medicaid coverage for abortion. Just earlier this month, this Medicaid case was argued in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Tracy believes that the Medicaid abortion coverage ban is part of a bigger Republican movement. “There has been an orchestrated, organized movement to eliminate abortion,” she says. “Clearly, the desire is to have Roe overturned, and the people it hurts the most—and I think it's been designed to do it—are disproportionately low income people of color.”
The recent Texas abortion ban is just another national wake–up call to those who did not realize what was at stake. According to Tracy, Trump’s presidency allowed these grass–root movements to pick up speed.
“Just up until very recently, [I] did not think Roe would be overturned,” she says. “But the slowness in reacting to Texas really alarms me.”
In her own words, Tracy is “a cynical optimist.” But the Texas ban still makes her heart ache. “My fear is that those who are in need are going to be without resources. It's hearing those stories of the women in Texas who are on their knees begging. Midnight was approaching, and they couldn't get procedures, and they couldn't get abortions.”
Tracy trusts that the future of the movement lies in young people. “I am glad that young women and [LGBTQ] people have a sense of entitlement to their rights … It’s continuing [the feminist movement], understanding we're not done,” she says. “Particularly if Roe is overturned, I have no doubt that young people and people of all genders will rise to the occasion.”
The legacy Tracy left on Penn’s campus continues to inspire the current generation of feminist activists at Penn. Megan Li (W ‘24), a student in Tracy’s Gender Studies class, "Women, Gender, Sexuality, and the Law," looks up to the women’s rights lawyer: “What I know about the most [regarding Penn’s history of activism] is Professor Tracy’s work with setting up the Penn Women’s Center, which I thought was very, very impressive. Professor Tracy and other people on campus really just sat in on admin’s offices until [Penn] released a statement and did something about the fact that there was a violent sexual assault in a fraternity.”
But Megan also points out that it’s impossible to replicate another sit–in of that same scale. “Now, that same recourse of advocacy isn’t available to students. Sit–ins are not effective anymore, simply because admin backed away from those public offices and no longer works in them after this [College Hall] protest.” A casual glance at the current list of senior administrators reveals that their offices are strewn across campus.
“That just shows how powerful [the Penn administration] understands student advocacy to be,” she says. “And the fact that they no longer want to deal with it.”
As a result, student activists now are struggling to find new methods of advocacy that can effectively address the Penn administration’s inaction. “There’s a feeling of, ‘Now what can we do? What works?’” says Megan. “How can we, especially on Penn’s campus, get admin to listen to us if they keep retreating into caves of not wanting to listen to students?”
Emily Campbell (C ‘22), another student in Tracy’s class and the poetry editor of the F–word, Penn’s feminist literary magazine, believes that moving forward, feminist groups on campus should collaborate more often. She echoes Tracy’s idea of collective work: “There’s a lot of ways that all different feminist groups can come together and work towards just one cause … We have these discussions in these clubs, but I think there’s not much actual action.”
While she recognizes these current challenges on Penn’s campus, Tracy remains hopeful as she looks upon her students as the future of the movement. “Teaching and being in a class like [Women, Gender, Sexuality, and the Law], I know there's a future," she says. "Every year, I see the young people who volunteered at the Women's Law Project. There is a future for us. We just have to be strategic and be in it for the long haul.”